Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the pre-eminent holiday fare success story. Not only was it gigantically successful for Dickens himself, to the point that not only did he then follow it up with other Christmas books (The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Haunted Man), but he also took charge of one of its early adaptations, trimming it down for oral performances. It has also, of course, been the subject of numerous film versions, with everyone from the Muppets to Bill Murray having a go. This one, from 1970, turns the story into a musical.
Albert Finney, grimacing and hunchbacked, and wearing a pretty obvious bald wig, takes on the role of the miser in need of redemption. On hand to provide said redemption are the likes of Alec Guinness, swanning about as a bizarrely fabulous Jacob Marley, Edith Evans as a Ghost of Christmas Present who has apparently come straight from playing Lady Bracknell in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. The story hews fairly close to Dickens for a good chunk of its running time, though alters scenes inn order to accommodate a variety if rather dire songs. The cast, meanwhile, barely bothers to act, preferring to mug instead, and given the script, one can hardly blame them.
The thing is, writing a screenplay for A Christmas Carol should be a very simple task. Dickens’ dialogue is lively and eminently quotable, and all the strong lines in the film are simply taken directly from the text. Where lyricist/composer/producer/scripter/chief culprit Leslie Bricusse goes horribly wrong is whenever he expands or adds, and a thudding, brain-dead, thick-eared obviousness takes over. And I haven’t even talked about the climax, where Scrooge’s final vision sees him in Hell, sentenced to a freezing clerk’s office and wrapped about with a novelty chain carried by a group of oiled rejects from The Bloody Pit of Horror. By this point, the film has generated into a dinner-theatre mess that cries out for the MST3K treatment.
It seems that every filmmaker wants to make a Christmas movie, just like every singer has to put out a Christmas album. But making a good Christmas movie is hard, and their numbers are few. There’s a reason why It’s a Wonderful Life and the 1951 A Christmas Carol are on all the time. When Elf appeared in 2003, it was the first good Christmas film since A Christmas Story in 1983. Scrooge is not of this rare number. It is, rather, a demonstration that not even the most apparently fool-proof property of them all can’t be rendered jaw-droppingly risible.
The picture is a very solid one, should you be in a very generous mood and decide to sit through the whole film. The colours are warm, and the image is very sharp, though not so sharp as to give the result an excessively digital sheen of hi-def. In other words, the film looks like it would have in the theatres in 1970, and that is what one would hope. The bit-rate averages out to between 15 and 20 Mbps – not the highest I’ve seen, but certainly adequate to the job. There is no grain or print damage, and the aspect ratio is the original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The film is boringly shot, except when it veers into the wrong-headed and ridiculous (though even then, the hell scene’s execution is so pedestrian it verges on the amateurish). But as uninteresting as the cinematography is, it is very nicely treated by the transfer.
We have a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track here, which is rather more grand than the source material would seem to require. I’m not talking about the quality of the songs here (though you won’t be humming them much to yourself afterwards, I promise). Rather, the soundtrack is showing its age. A 1970 track simply isn’t going to have the production quality of a 2011 one, and the age shows in the relative thinness of the sound. There is some surround presence on the part of the music, and a few sound FX, but not many. Just enough to add a bit of depth to the sound, but barely enough to be noticeable. The sound quality is quite clean, though, and free of distortion.
Theatrical Trailer. That’s it, and a very rough-looking one it is, too. Barely watchable.
In essence, this is a coal in your stocking from the director of The Poseidon Adventure. It is not ripe for rediscovery, but it is rather ripe. Period.